"Outcomes Assessment: More than a Plan"

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December 2008

Leaders of two units that have some of the stronger assessment plans were panelists at the December 3, 2008 Quality Advocates meeting. Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry, Chancellor, Penn State Altoona and Nan Crouter, Dean, College of Health and Human Development discussed their best practices for assessment. Robert N. Pangborn, Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education moderated the session.

Robert PangbornPangborn opened the session with a history of assessment at Penn State which began in the early 1990s with the work of the Commission on Undergraduate Education. This was followed by a review and reform of general education in the late 1990s that had as one of its principal recommendations the ongoing assessment of learning outcomes associated with the general education curriculum. As part of Penn State’s Middle States reaccreditation, the Coordinating Committee on University Assessment was formed in 2005 and the Committee developed a University-wide plan for assessmentThe real value of assessment is using the results to improve teaching and learning.

Rob Pangborn
. More recently, assessment at the program level was tied to planning in the 2008-09 through 2014-15 cycle of strategic planning, when all budget units were asked to discuss their “progress and initiatives in learning outcomes assessment”.

Lori Bechtel-WherryThe underlying linkage between assessment and improvement in the curriculum or course drives Bechtel-Wherry’s view. Bechtel-Wherry strongly believes assessment should be faculty-owned and driven, but administratively supported. At Penn State Altoona, faculty in each of the 19 academic programs have set learning outcomes for their programs (http://www.aa.psu.edu/opa/outcomes.htm) and 8 of the 19 have assessment plans. In addition, the campus worked with its advisory board, Faculty Senate, students, staff, and alumni to develop institutional goals which set overall learning outcomes for students (http://www.aa.psu.edu/opa/docs/Penn%20State%20Altoona%20Institutional%20Goals%20Summary.pdf).

When you talk about assessment, you have to create a culture where people feel comfortable to ask questions, to express opinions, and to disagree. And you have to let faculty own assessment.

Lori Bechtel-Wherry

To develop a culture of assessment, Bechtel-Wherry suggested some steps, including:

  • Having lots of conversation about assessment with faculty to educate them and ensure they understand they are not being told how to teach.
  • Identifying faculty leaders who support assessment to lead faculty efforts.
  • Creating a culture where people feel comfortable discussing assessment and its implications.
  • Providing financial resources for faculty to attend outside workshops at schools well-known for their assessment efforts, such as Alverno College or Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
  • Hiring staff, such as a coordinator of assessment, who are dedicated to helping faculty in assessment efforts and can provide individual consulting or group workshops.
  • Sponsoring group discussion of books on classroom assessment.
  • Using locally-developed and national surveys, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, to determine student needs/concerns.
  • Providing on-campus workshops for faculty and supporting faculty in sharing their assessment efforts.
  • Open communication (most important is listening to faculty) and transparency.
  • Creating a faculty/staff Steering Committee for Assessment to guide the process for assessing student learning outcomes (and not the assessment of teaching). The Committee establishes assessment policies and guidelines, facilitates dialogue, sponsors workshops, advises on necessary resources, and creates venues for sharing best practices. Moreover, it communicates to the broader campus community that the assessment process will continue to be an integral part of the culture of the college.

Faculty need to know that this process should be focused on student learning and improving the program and curriculum… This is all about teaching, learning, and improvement.

Lori Bechtel-Wherry

In contrast to Penn State Altoona, the College of Health and Human Development is at the beginning stages of assessment for programs which have not previously been subject to national accreditation. The College decided assessment must be done at the individual unit level for a number of reasons. These include the variety of programs which range from applied programs such as tourism management to bench science programs such as kinesiology, the fact that some majors are offered at campuses other than University Park, and differences in the amount of experience faculty have with assessment. The professors-in-charge of the programs work closely with the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Outreach to develop assessment plans. The college also sponsored a college-wide retreat to educate faculty about assessment and share information.

nan CrouterCrouter described the approaches that several different programs within the college took to develop their assessment plans. Faculty in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism program developed detailed course objectives and surveyed current students and recent graduates. Survey results showed that some students felt that some of their courses were redundant and/or that some students couldn’t make the connection between courses. This helped faculty to better sequence and design courses. As a result of their strategic planning and assessment initiatives, faculty in the program decided to review their entire curriculum (http://www.hhdev.psu.edu/rptm/about/docs/RPTM_StrategicPlan_2008-13.pdf). Since the Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) program can be completed on nine different campuses, faculty from across the campuses collaborated together. The faculty developed a common vision, and used an ANGEL site for meeting minutes, information, developing goals, identifying resources and providing information about faculty. These actions have strengthened the disciplinary community across all campuses.

Part of the way we support assessment is by making it visible and central. And by rewarding it when it seems to be done well.

Nan Crouter
Crouter had some suggestions for others involved in assessment. The July 1 deadline for strategic planning provided momentum to get the assessment process started. Now it is up to leadership to maintain that momentum. Assessment is now an agenda item in regular meetings so progress can be monitored more easily. Crouter also cautioned that one size does not fit all when it comes to assessment. Strategies that work well in one discipline may not work well in others. For example, the HDFS program posts their syllabi online. This helps students at campuses plan their courses for an easier transition to University Park, can allow faculty to streamline course content, and connect faculty teaching at the World Campus, Continuing Education, and campuses other than UP. But some faculty in other programs were hesitant of this, so the college is continuing to explore other options to provide these linkages.

Crouter suggested some steps other areas could think about in their own assessment efforts:

  • Take advantage of University resources, such as the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, to provide training and information on assessment.
  • Use ANGEL for collaboration both within units and between areas.
  • Look to Penn State’s two survey centers (the Survey Research Center at University Park and the Center for Survey Research at Penn State Harrisburg) for assistance in surveying students.
  • Departments approach assessment differently and will need autonomy to decide what is best for their programs.
  • Share best practices often and recognize those that are doing it well.

Discussion following the presentation touched on the importance of linking assessment to planning and improvement, and the need for a two-pronged perspective for assessment of many courses (for contribution to the major and also for contribution as a general education course). Presenters and attendees stressed the importance of listening and keeping assessment efforts public. All can contribute to building a culture which supports assessment.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.